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Hugh McColl credits summer camp with shaping him into a leader

He’s led one of the nation’s largest banks and is often credited with growing Charlotte into a financial capital, but Hugh McColl still remembers what it felt like to jump into the chilly, spring-fed lake at YMCA summer camp.

While growing up in a cotton farming and banking family in Bennettsville, S.C., McColl’s parents sent him and his two brothers to Camp Greenville, a YMCA camp located in Cedar Mountain, N.C. He recalls going each summer from around age 8 into his teen years, when he served as a junior counselor.

It was at the YMCA camp, where kids from all over the southeast gathered for sports, swimming, crafts and hiking, that McColl says he learned some of the lessons that would shape him into a successful business leader.

The rivalries between cabins for the neatest bunks or the best ball players taught him the value of competition. Baseball and basketball games showed him the benefits of teamwork. And chore time illustrated the value of serving for the greater good, even when the task is menial.

“It was a wonderful experience to go to camp,” McColl recalled while strolling through Little Sugar Creek Greenway on a recent sunny morning. “I learned a lot of leadership skills at Camp Greenville.”

McColl, former chairman and CEO of Bank of America, is this year’s honorary chairman of the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund.

The fund raises money to send kids from low-income families to day and overnight camps. Thanks to the generosity of readers, as well as matching grants and corporate donations, more than 200 kids will attend 12 camps this summer. This is the fund’s fifth year.

Over 41 years at Bank of America and its predecessors, McColl, 77, built the nation’s largest consumer bank with merger after merger, capped by the 1998 NationsBank Corp.-BankAmerica Corp. deal.

He retired as Bank of America’s chief executive in 2001 and launched an investment bank called McColl Partners, a private equity firm and two fine art businesses, among other ventures.

McColl’s philanthropy can be seen all over Charlotte, from endowing the Children’s Theater of Charlotte (the McColl Family Theater is the larger of two theaters at ImaginOn) to funding uptown’s McColl Center for Visual Art.

A father of three and grandfather of eight, he thinks about children and how helping them can shape the city’s future.

“One of the things our society needs is to learn to live together and work together and play together. … Learning to be with people who are different from you is a great opportunity for young people,” both the affluent and economically disadvantaged, he said. “It cuts both ways.”

Sending kids to camps where they’ll gain experiences and friendships they never imagined could lay the groundwork for a better life, he believes.

“A little bit of money does a whole lot of good,” he says.

McColl says he and his wife, Jane, sent their two sons and one daughter to summer camp each year.

When departure day rolled around, the atmosphere at the McColl house “was like Christmas. They wanted to get up early so they could go to camp.”

“You shouldn’t underestimate the importance for a young person to be by themselves (away from their parents). It builds self-esteem,” he said.

McColl still has camp buddies on his Christmas card list.

He credits camp with instilling in him a love of hiking – a love that inspired him to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and hike the Appalachian Trail.

And he says he has camp – and the Marine Corps – to thank for teaching him the value of keeping a clean bunk and making up a tight bed.

“I made up the beds today, as a matter of fact,” he says with a grin.

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